E. L Doctorow
Fiction 200 pages
New York. Random House. 2014
Who is Andrew? In the beginning, the narrator calls him “my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist.” But it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that Andrew himself is telling the story. Another man is asking him questions, apparently a psychiatrist. Andrew is baiting him, attempting to catch his attention by telling him he hears voices.
Andrew tells his psychiatrist a good deal more as well, occasionally reprimanding the doctor’s ignorance and naiveté. Apparently, Andrew is well educated, and perhaps a good bit older than the psychiatrist. Yet Andrew is flawed. As a child, he caused a fatal accident. As an adult, he fatally over-medicates his baby. Although his second wife’s death is not his fault, he seems to accept the blame for the event.
Like other books by E. L. Doctorow, “Andrew’s Brain” is a historical novel. Its history is contemporary, and its historical figures are implied rather than named. Andrew is a scientific man in a world governed by archaic ideas and values. When he delivers his message to authority, it is ill received.
His message is to stop pretending to be what we are not. We have minds, but not souls and we are less important than we think we are.
Andrew defends his pessimism through the cognitive science he teaches, “If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing, and if it needs the world to exist, it is still nothing.” But when he falls in love, Andrew’s pessimism is replaced with joy. Andrew isn't merely a scientist who views brains as machines; he’s also a romantic idealist. Doctorow gives us a full picture of Andrew, complex and self-contradicting.
The book is witty, well-written, and delivers a few surprises. One of Doctorow’s best.